Five Thousand feet, flying 290 Degrees Magnetic. Fuel low. I have that sick feeling in my belly that something's wrong, I'm sweating even though the cabin temperature reads 62 degrees Fahrenheit. Fifty minutes north of Sacramento and I should have seen Placerville by now: at 75 knots I should have been there 10 minutes ago. It’s only 45 miles from Sacramento! I figured 7 degrees left to offset the wind drift today; I can’t be to the west, can I? To my right, the majestic Sierra Nevada looms quietly watching my little drama - the Cambrian rocks stoic. I hardly notice them. Below, the enormous pines of the foothills menace any kind of emergency landing in my Piper Cub …a light little trainer that I worked and sweated to buy. My Dad kicked in the last two hundred dollars to make it my 18th birthday present and here I am only six months later in trouble and low on fuel. I push down the panic and turn west; I scan the coarse geography below - searching…
Kaye was right on time. Normally, I would be the one to pick up my date but tonite she was going to be my ‘chaperone’ to the little west side Piccadilly theatre she loved. She knocked and I sprang to the door anxious to see her and forget about this hard day. “Hello soldier,” she said. “Hello Kaye, you look great.” I was never much on superlatives. “Come on in and have a drink we have some time and I’m a lush!” “Hardly Paul, she mocked, I’ve seen you drooping after two pints.” We sat on the sofa and held hands and listened to the wireless, yes this was England so it was always the ‘wireless’ and not the radio. She sipped and I gulped and after 10 quiet lovely minutes we got up and I helped with her coat and we went out into the cool Autumn evening.
NO AIR RAID SHELTER HERE the sign shouted in bright red letters illuminated by a little spotlight on the ground. The theatre was old and very British with tall columns in front and wonderful ancient architecture inside and out. It smelled like it was a hundred years old and Kaye told me it was three hundred and more. We settled into our seats about halfway up and on the aisle - my choice and she approved. It was semi-lit and real gas lamps burned at strategic spots to light the aisles. There were ornate electric lights above too and they were on but very low creating a cozy atmosphere. I went for candy and drinks and when I came back Kaye was doing a touch-up, her compact mirror looking small and feminine in her hand. The lights dimmed and the show started and we sat there happy - my arm around her soft shoulders. The screen flickered and 'Stagecoach' starring John Wayne and Claire Trevor began but I hardly noticed; I closed my eyes and sank a little bit and relished the soft seat and my lovely friend. Through half-opened eyes, I watched the movie, Apache Indian battles here and there and quarreling passengers aboard a western stagecoach barreling through dust and brush going somewhere just as dusty. The Ringo Kid was a bad guy turned hero and Dallas was his girl in the end. And then I felt sleepy and I let it come. I saw western hills and valleys in the movie fade and John Wayne galloping through Monument Valley. The nightmare came - it moved in and pushed away the safety and peace and the shells burst. John Wayne and Claire Trevor are far away now away and I’m back in my B-17 bomber, 18,000 feet over Germany. Lost. Lost dammit, and I’m the navigator. The Captain shouted over the intercom for a fix and I told him I was working on it and I felt the panic. I remembered that day over the mountains and my relief when I finally found the airfield and landed on that dangerous hilltop. A sheer cliff on one side and a sheer drop at the end of the runway. Elevation I don’t know, maybe 2,500 feet. I almost skidded when I landed and I was sweat-soaked and ashamed of myself for being careless. Not enough fuel and lousy airmanship. I felt like walking home but I gassed it up and headed back to Sacramento in the morning after a long night alone.
Me-109 and Focke-Wulf german fighters slashed past my window their guns flashing tracer bullets that streaked a pretty green color. Little missiles of death and 20 mm cannon shells too. Now, they were gone - sent spinning off into ragged dogfights by our American Mustang fighters. The flak started now - radar-guided shells burst around our ship, seeking us in the freezing skies. We were bouncing around and the Captain was doing some hard turns and evasive maneuvers and my Nav table and charts and pencils and flight computer were bouncing in time with his work. Finally, the ADF direction finder settled down and I struck a good LOP, a good line of position to the east so I plotted that. The Captain asked for that fix again. “Hey Paul we need a good one and fast,” he shouted. Mike wasn’t a bad guy but he yelled over that intercom when we were in combat and it was strictly nerves. I was probably yelling back but who knows? The battle is like that you don’t remember much of it afterward. But my knees were shaking now just as they did over those California hills four years ago when I was just a kid. I had no way of doing a sextant shot of the Sun, that took too long to calculate and we were getting close to the target. Finally, the Weser river came into sight and I was able to pick a corner and use that with my line of position to ‘fix’ our airplane 30 miles south of the target. But my dream ended; it stopped abruptly and I never really got that far in the dream; I remember being in the airplane and frightened but the rest of the story only happened in real life. Kaye was shaking me and I saw her face in the dark so close to me. The lights were out even the gas lights on the sides and it was almost pitch black. ‘Crump, Crump, Crump!’ I heard and felt it at once - she said, "I’m sorry I almost let you sleep." Her breath was warm and sweet on my cheek and she was - so very calm. “It’s better if we stay here, there’s no shelter and the near one is too far to risk it.” ‘Crump, Crump-Crump!’ They came in three’s, Heinkels I thought; 500-pound bombs. “I thought the air raids were almost over now?” I said, feeling helpless and small and afraid that Kaye would get hurt or killed: It goes fast through your mind and then you breathe again and you can think. She was used to this. “Well, I went through the Blitz you know.” She said it with some pride and with sadness too. And then the ‘Crumps’ became more distant and we knew they were spreading their death North of us and that we were the lucky ones tonight. We would live and I would fly another mission tomorrow, or the next day, and it would go on and on until it stopped. We sat there for a long time and we embraced and we kissed lightly and lovingly in that dark place. I thought about my day and my bombs and the frightened kids and mothers in Germany. ‘Crump, Crump, Crump,’ now I knew what I was dishing up. And, suddenly I felt lost again. I felt like I wanted to go home and take Kaye with me and we would go for a long ride in the Piper. Together, we would never be lost. And, when I got confused she would be there and I would be ok. The little gas lights flared up suddenly and people began to move to the exits. We sat there and waited patiently and we were the last to rise. Come on she said quietly, “let’s go home.”